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What does good classroom design mean for disadvantaged learners?

Christina Kalachani, Wonder research intern

 Girls in a classrom at our partner school in the Philippines.  

It is said that physical environment affects human behaviour. For instance, various scales of behaviour are related and regulated by spaces both privately and territorially Most of us take spaces for granted and we feel lucky when good spaces are part of tour everyday lives and routines, spaces such as homely houses, pleasant workplaces, clean schools, awe-inspiring museums and relaxing green spaces.

But now researchers are starting to look at the relationship between neuroscience and architecture. We believe that education is important for empowering women and girls, but what role does empowering space, for example in school design, have on their ability to learn? Is a good space a luxury, or is it an important part of the education puzzle?

Here we explore some of the spatial design elements that have been shown to make a difference in students learning:

Light

It is common sense that light is essential for humans and it has known effects on sleeping, focus, memory, attention and school performance. A study conducted by Heschong and colleagues suggests that academic performance relies on sufficient exposure on sunlight. They found that students whose classrooms were wide and had sunlight has greater academic performance.  Additionally, a noteworthy study by the Architectural Research Laboratory of the University of Michigan found that students in windowless classrooms learned less well than other learners.

Sound

How do you feel when you enter a space with bad acoustics? Straining to hear or battling with too much background noise is enough to give anyone a headache. Children who learn in classrooms with limited to bad acoustics tend to underperform in their tasks. It makes sense that when the child is unable to hear the teacher's instructions clearly or finds it difficult to listen to her peers she would struggle.

Beauty

The term "Neuroaesthetics" is a new field representing a convergence of neuroscience and empirical aesthetics—the study of aesthetics rooted in observation. Apart from engineering and all the mechanisms that are involved in it, scientists believe that beautiful and well-established buildings and spaces contribute to emerge people's emotions and thinking.

Vitruvius suggested that architecture provokes pleasure and happiness in a way that mere "buildings" do not. Well - designed classrooms, therefore, could make students happier and improve their cognitive skills.

With respect to senses and emotions, a more recent study confirms this. Barrett, Professor from the University of Salford, claims that classroom design significantly affects students' academic performance – all of the factors above plus the value of clean air and the colours used in schools. In their work Barrett and his colleagues investigated how people living and working in different environments evaluated their focus and perception in certain domains.

They wrote: “Schools cannot be just simple buildings without "soul" and providing the best circumstances for the students' academic performance. From a neuroscientific perspective it is suggested that beautifully established buildings promote the positive reinforcement of the learning experience.”

Most studies on this subject have been conducted in developed countries. It would be fascinating to see how these factors might be mediated by culture and local environmental conditions and to explore to what extent good school and classroom design needs to be prioritised in education policy. At a time when building projects are not favoured, but the importance of safe spaces for women and access to clean toilets is starting to be recognised as essential to women and girls’ learning, we look forward to a fraction of the attention shown to the design of schools and universities in the West being given to those for learners in the global south.